Imagine Jennifer Doudna working in the lab overnight, her eyes sore, her head pulsing, and her mind swirling with an existential crisis. Utilizing a bacterial cell’s self-defense mechanism, the geneticist has mastered the ability to reproduce and guide gene-editing technology, otherwise known as CRISPR-Cas9. This technology could save countless lives, cure genetic diseases, and reverse the effects of cancer. But it could also advance efforts at human enhancement, leading to a revival of modern eugenics. In December, the National Academy of Sciences and the National Academy of Medicine held a three-day summit on CRISPR technology.
Then & Now
Religious historians take on the present
Conservative religious people decry what they see as a liberal media unsympathetic to their worldview. Liberal Protestants and Catholics wonder why the media deploys the umbrella term “Christians” but seems to mean mostly people who sound nothing like them. People of other faiths may wonder why they rarely appear in the news except to represent extremism of some form. It seems as if the media aids rather than ameliorates the growing polarization of the American populace. Eighty-nine years ago an interfaith group of activists and religious and political leaders aimed to use the nascent radio and movie industries to bring people of different faiths, races, and ethnicities together.
Gregory the Great, pope from 590-604 AD, wrote the Pastoral Rule to strengthen the office of the episcopacy following the fall of Rome. Widely read throughout Europe by bishops and laypeople, this treatise describes how bishops should lead, teach, live their lives, and govern others. The Pastoral Rule was intended to reshape and empower bishops following the spiritual, cultural, and economic deterioration of the Roman Empire.
A 2006 study in American Sociological Review shows that, while both divisions among American Christians and negative perceptions between people of different faiths are eroding, there is still one group that Americans don’t trust: those who choose to remain outside of communities of belief. Further research shows that atheists are perceived about as favorably as Muslims. Not believing in God constitutes a social mōs on par with one of the most maligned religious groups in the current American zeitgeist. (At least one op-ed has called for a political alliance between Muslims and atheists on the grounds that much of the current vitriol in American politics is aimed at these two groups.) The most fascinating question here falls outside of quantitative analysis: what does an atheist look like?
The question of American identity has historically been both complex and contested. What’s more, it often yields mythic notions rooted in exceptionalist dogmas like election, commission, moral regeneracy, sacred land, and innocent past. Embedded in religious American exceptionalism is the American Dream: if an individual works hard, perseveres, and is a good citizen, there is no limit to how far she can advance.
Analyzing the relationship between faith and the political left—its history and present condition—reveals a century filled with antagonisms. But there are also affinities and technologies for continuing rapprochement. Historically there has been an undeniable antagonism between religion and communism.
Roughly 94 percent of black voters now vote for a candidate from the Democratic Party. This high number at the national level may be due in part to President Obama’s racial identity. In 2008 Obama surpassed even the solidification of black votes for Lyndon Baines Johnson that occurred in 1964. Has the United States moved closer to a post-racial society?
In 1911, Afro-Caribbean intellectual activist Hubert Harrison wrote in the New York Call that “politically the Negro is the touchstone of the modern democratic idea.” This touchstone metaphor is both startling and profound.
As this campaign season reels recklessly, leaving a wake of increasing intolerance, those holding differing opinions can find little common ground. Past seasons of “come, let us reason together” have disappeared; unreasoned assertions from the chronically ignorant now dominate the increasingly purchased airwaves. Little from any side appears balanced or fair. We craft dollar-driven hegemonies of self-satisfied ignorance, cultures of the titillated and thoughtless. Where we once enshrined the ideals of freedom, we now erect a golden calf of contempt atop a tower of babble. Call it the gospel according to the uninformed. When creed gives way to screed, who speaks into our opinionated age with a staid voice of wisdom?
Maybe it’s because I’m Japanese-American that I feel skeptical reading Western political philosophy. When were we ever born as free individuals into a state of nature, as Locke and Rousseau asserted? I’ve always believed that we’re born into families, with binding ties, benefits, and obligations. The Bible affirms that relationships are not merely social constructs for us to make and break as we choose.